Under the floodlights at Vicarage Road, Watford moved within touching distance of the automatic promotion places thanks to their third consecutive league win — but it wasn't without a fight from their visitors Derby County.
Two quick-fire goals from Joao Pedro and former Ram Will Hughes looked set to put the Hornets in cruise control, but Derby got themselves back into the game when William Troost-Ekong turned the ball into his own net, and could have snatched a point with sustained pressure on the Watford goal towards the end of the match.
Story of the game
Watford boss Xisco Munoz made just one change coming into the match: Troost-Ekong was rotated in for Francisco Sierralta, who dropped to the bench having been an almost constantly key figure since his introduction to the starting line-up in December.
The adjustments were more wholesale for Wayne Rooney's Derby. The record goalscorer for England's national team made five switches, mostly in defence where Nathan Byrne, George Edmundson and Lee Buchanan came in for Teden Mengi, Matt Clarke and Craig Forsyth respectively — further up the pitch, Max Bird and Patrick Roberts replaced Kamil Jozwiak and Lee Gregory.
It was a bright start from the Hornets, who pressed high and robbed their opponents of possession in good areas. In one instance, a slick one-two between Kiko Femenia and Nathaniel Chalobah down the right saw the former attempt to slide a ball into Ismaila Sarr, but there was just too much pace on it.
Strutting with the confidence that comes with seven goals and none conceded in their last two games, Watford had their lead within 19 minutes. This time, that give-and-go down the right worked as Sarr blitzed past Lee Buchanan and fired it into the middle for Pedro. There was a bit of luck with the finish, but the Brazilian didn't care; he looked delighted to notch his second goal in as many matches.
Just a minute later, it was two, and it was Hughes against his former club. Nathaniel Chalobah back-heeled the ball back into the danger zone after a set-piece situation, and the former Ram shifted it onto his left foot before summoning up a cultured finish into the far of the net.
Watford were really grooving here. Femenia teased a third with a sumptuous cross into the area after patient build-up on the 25-minute mark, but it was just too far in front of Pedro's lunge for a brace.
Derby thought they'd pegged a goal back with just over five minutes of the first-half remaining when Colin Kazim-Richards headed the ball in from a corner, but referee Tim Robinson gave Watford a free-kick for an alleged foul on goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann by Andre Wisdom. A contentious decision to say the very least.
The visitors had a super chance to halve the deficit with the final kick of the period. Roberts caught the Hornets defence off guard with a lofted pass to Martyn Waghorn who took the volley on first time, attempting to lob Bachmann from just outside the box, but his effort landed on top of the net and Watford went into the break two goals to the good.
Watford had the first chance of the second half when Hughes replicated Waghorn's earlier chance for Pedro, a high ball beating the Derby defence and landing straight at the feet of the 19-year old forward, but the Brazilian's attempt didn't trouble David Marshall as much as it should have.
Dissatisfied and wanting his side to get themselves back into this contest, Rooney shuffled his pack just before the hour mark, with Gregory and Jozwiak coming onto the field in place of Graeme Shinnie and Roberts.
It was Derby who worked the next opening when Buchanan crossed the ball for Kazim-Richards on the edge of the area; he swivelled on the spot and fired a volley towards goal, but it was high and wide of the net.
But the hosts remained largely untroubled, confident in their ability to maintain and, at some point, extend their advantage. Sarr, pivotal to Watford's first goal, decided he wanted to get on the scoresheet himself when he waltzed into the penalty area and arrowed at goal on his left foot, but it fizzed just wide of the far post.
Watford kept pushing. Tom Cleverley and Sarr linked up well in the box, working the space for the former to drive a ball across goal, but it just evaded the reach of both Pedro and Ken Sema.
The Hornets should have taken their chances, and got themselves in for a nervy final 15 minutes or so when Derby pegged a goal back. An inch-perfect cross from Nathan Byrne caused all sorts of problems for the Watford defence, but it was eventually turned into his own net by Troost-Ekong. Game on.
Byrne came close to being the architect of another extraordinary goal in the 84th minute when his powerful corner cannoned off the crossbar via a tentative stop from Bachmann — who knows if he meant it, but it was a spectacular effort from the full-back that nearly paid off.
Watford worked a chance for Philip Zinckernagel, aiming to score his second goal for the club as he struck from the edge of the area in stoppage time, but it was a comfortable save for Marshall.
In the final few moments, Derby sustained pressure on the Watford goal with a succession of set-pieces which even Marshall got involved in, but to no avail. A huge three points for Watford, however it was a performance and match Derby can take encouragement from, too.
Takeaways from the match
Watford pile pressure on fellow promotion chasers
They made things a little difficult for themselves in the final stages of the match, but the points are al that will matter to the Hornets at the moment — and it's now 23 out of a possible 33 since Munoz was appointed.
Watford were up against an in-form Derby side tonight and did manage to control the match for large parts. Perhaps they took their foot of the gas a little too much in the second half but a win's a win, and they now rise to third putting real pressure on the teams around them to deliver in their respective matches across this weekend.
Not the result they wanted, but Derby's resurgence continues
Having won five out of six coming into this — and with a remarkably good record against sides currently in the top six this season, beating Norwich City, AFC Bournemouth and Swansea City so far — the Rams might just have fancied themselves at Vicarage Road tonight, but it wasn't to be as Watford's quality shone through in the crucial moments.
Nonetheless, the positive atmosphere with Rooney at the helm appears to be intact — Derby showed a lot of fight here, and could have capitalised on Watford's somewhat wearisome second-half display.
Watford: Bachmann; Femenia, Troost-Ekong, Cathcart, Masina; Chalobah (Gosling 59'), Hughes (Wilmot 76'), Cleverley; Sarr, Pedro, Sema (Zinckernagel 76').
Subs not used: Elliot, Ngakia, Sierralta, Lazaar, Gray, Perica.
Derby County: Marshall; Byrne, Widsom, Edmundson, Buchanan; Bird, Shinnie (Gregory 58'), Knight; Waghorn (Sibley 81'), Kazim-Richards, Roberts (Jozwiak 58').
Subs not used: Roos, MacDonald, Mengi, Forsyth, Baningime, Watson.
Following victory here, Watford travel northwest to face Blackburn Rovers on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, Derby return to their home ground of Pride Park to host Huddersfield Town on Tuesday.